COVID-19 pandemic: Fear grips schools in US over shortage of teachers

Many schools in the United States of America (USA) are scrambling to find enough substitute teachers to keep classrooms running through the latest surge of the coronavirus.

According to the Associated Press, some experts warn there are longer-term problems with the teacher pipeline that cannot be solved with emergency substitutes, bonuses, and loosened qualifications.

For years, some states have been issuing fewer teaching licenses, and many districts have had trouble filling vacancies, particularly in poorer areas. Shortages are being felt much more widely due to absences during a pandemic that is testing educators like no other stretch of their careers, raising fears of many more leaving the profession.

To address the problem, states are raising salaries, seeking more teachers outside formal training programs, and pursuing other strategies to develop more educators.

Randal Lutz, the superintendent of the Baldwin – Whitehall School district near Pittsburgh expressed worries over the situation.

“I see a very large concern, it is like impending doom almost, when you look out a few years at what this may turn into,” Lutz said.

German classes had to go fully online last year at Pittsburgh when none of the handful of applicants was qualified for a vacancy.

According to Jacqueline King, a researcher with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, “Based on declining enrollment at teaching colleges and surveys of teachers about their future plans, shortages are likely to become more widespread, affecting regions and subject areas that traditionally have not been affected.”

“What we seem to be seeing now is more widespread shortages in areas like elementary education and secondary English. These were not fields that previously we thought, ‘Oh, there is a big shortage there,” King said.

In Pennsylvania, the number of new teacher certifications fell by two-thirds in the 2010s. Although many of the state’s public universities began as teachers’ colleges, the number of education majors studying in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has fallen from about 30,000 a decade ago to nearly 17,000 last year.

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The trend worries Tanya Garcia, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for post-secondary and higher education.

“We used to be a prime exporter of educators, and now we are not holding on to the people,” Garcia said.

Not every measure has been grim. Florida’s American Rescue Plan application said projected “day 1” teacher vacancies for the coming year dipped between 2019 and 2020. And California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing said initial teaching certificates increased from 15,400 in 2015-16 to 18,000 in 2019-20. Still, both are grappling with teacher shortages in particular specialties.

Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit education group, argued in a January 2019 report that shortages were clearly a problem in some areas but generic teacher shortages that had been warned about in recent decades have not materialized.

“The misalignment between teacher supply and demand is where the teacher shortage crisis is born and lives,” the report said.

To get through the omicron-drive surge, which hit school staffing hard, schools have adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach with administrators, parents, and even National Guard soldiers filling in as substitutes.

Credential requirements have been loosened temporarily. And bonuses backed by federal relief money have been offered to make working in schools more appealing amid a labour shortage.

For the longer term, states have identified needs to invest in strategies to bolster the teacher pipeline. State officials outlined plans to improve teacher recruitment and retention in applications last year for federal COVID-19 relief money. They include fostering teacher aides to qualify them for classroom teaching vacancies and subsidizing college tuition.

There are concerns about teacher shortages that have arisen in the past, sometimes during wartime, have prompted stopgap measures similar to what is currently being developed, said Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, a University of North Dakota education professor.

The results, she said, can be ineffective and even counterproductive, with poorly prepared instructors who are more likely to leave the job within a few years of starting.

“We may be solving one problem. There is no teacher, there is no adult in the room at this moment but we are creating a ripple effect of problems that are going to reverberate for years,” she said.

Kerry Mulvihill, a science teacher at Gerald Huesken Middle School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said only five people applied for an 8th-grade science position this fall and none of them made it to the interview stage.

Two special education teachers recently resigned in the middle of the year, a formerly rare occurrence during her 25 years as a teacher, she said.

“We really have a crisis. Now, I’m like, oh my golly. I’m begging people, hold in, hold in, we need quality people, for sure. We cannot all retire at the same time,” Mulvihill said.

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